The Trump White House was close to pulling off its first drama-free week after a month of chaos, but on Friday, the new administration reverted to the norm.
The new president and his team seemed to be settling in over the last seven days. Donald Trump quickly named a new, well-respected national security adviser. They held off on a coming executive order limiting who can enter the country so relevant federal agencies could weigh in. And senior White House officials stayed on message.
Then Friday dawned.
Mere hours before a scheduled speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump fired off two tweets questioning the FBI’s competence.
The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security "leakers" that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017
find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017
A couple hours later at his CPAC speech at National Harbor in Maryland, he lambasted the media over using unnamed sources — mere minutes after his staff conducted a briefing at the White House attributed anonymously to a “senior White House official.” That’s the kind of source description reporters use when citing a source granted anonymity, typically to allow candor and provide protection, and is common practice for this White House and previous ones.
Rounding out the day, the White House press staff created confusion and further sewed ill-will with the press corps Friday afternoon with an unforced error over access to Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Reporters were visibly — and audibly — frustrated with Spicer and his aides for turning an off-camera question-and-answer session at 1:15 p.m. in the White House briefing room into an invitation-only affair in his smaller office.
What happened? Around midday, the White House updated its official daily guidance with a change: Spicer would hold the Q&A session at 1:30 p.m. in his office with an “expanded pool,” though White House staff never clearly defined that term for reporters or White House Correspondents Association board members.
The change created space limitations, and White House press aides started a list of outlets interested in attending. Those selected by the White House to attend to notified via email. Among the outlets not granted access were CNN and CQ Roll Call, despite requesting access.
Spicer addressed the situation during the gaggle, according to audio shared by reporters who made it in, by noting this and past White Houses typically have not had a daily briefing with reporters on days when a president speaks publicly. Yet, he still chose to hold a gaggle; he did not explain why, other than stating a pledge to try to have a daily back-and-forth with reporters.
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first lead spokesman, appeared on CNN Friday afternoon, calling it an “unwise and unproductive” move. But he also advised the media to stop hyperventilating over it.
Hours after the chaotic scene in the West Wing’s press office, where reporters were being turned away by still-new staffers, frustrated reporters continued to express their disgust with the invitation-only briefing.
Rewind past the six routine days: Trump exited the Oval Office last Friday and walked toward Marine One holding the hands of his young grandchildren. His White House was once again denying allegations about its alleged hard-line intentions.
Trump was heading to a Boeing facility in South Carolina to celebrate the company’s newest massive airliner, and the cameras broadcast his grandfatherly side. It could have been a positive moment for a White House that has shown signs of seeking a re-set and a less-brash tone.
Instead, reporters assembled to watch the president’s departure were busily trying to determine if Trump was considering deploying 100,000 National Guard troops to round up illegal immigrants.
Like much of the administration’s early weeks, an otherwise routine Friday morning at the White House had suddenly given way — yet again — to confusion, chaos, deflecting and denials.
Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute described Trump’s first month as dominated by constant chaos. Even Republicans who have a stake in the parts of his agenda with which they agree, just four weeks in had no idea “what to expect from him anymore.”
Mark Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Thursday that Trump and his top aides had just completed “30 days of running a continual sprint.”
But over the last few days, there were signs the White House had slowed to a jog — largely because its frenetic early pace played a part in missteps like the roll-out of its initial travel ban executive order.
What changed from slightly after noon last Friday through the following Thursday night?
“The administration did a good job over the weekend and early in the week clearing the deck on issues that weren’t going well,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who was a senior aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner and Speaker Paul D. Ryan when he was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012.
Steel also credited the White House for “pivoting back to Trump’s basic message of economic populism.”
Spicer’s Thursday explanation about the status of a second order expected to deny entry into the United States for some individuals from a handful of Muslim-majority countries appeared to show an administration more willing to work within Washington’s long-established processes. Those include running major policy changes by the entities that will be charged with actually implementing them.
“What we are doing is now in the implementation phase of working with the respective departments and agencies, to make sure that when we execute this, it’s done in a manner that’s flawless,” he said. “It’s not a question of delaying it. It’s a question of getting it right,” Spicer said, alluding to concerns about the first order the White House never gave federal officials a chance to vet.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and even on Friday, Trump was mostly restrained in comments to groups of reporters allowed into his meetings at the White House.
Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, and Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, avoided venturing from their message about White House stability and his agenda at a Thursday event at CPAC.
Even White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, blacklisted by some outlets after a list of questionable comments, stuck to the script during her own Thursday CPAC appearance.
Before the two Friday FBI-slamming tweets, the president had otherwise slowed the pace of his often-bombastic morning social media posts.
Spicer even did a little old-school Washington posturing from the James S. Brady briefing room podium when he declined on Wednesday.
When asked whether the White House and congressional Republicans intend to push one plan combining their policy ideas, Spicer left the door open for the president to roll out his own plan. Minutes later, Spicer referred to “the president’s plan” when discussing how the administration intends to achieve one of its top campaign goals.
The relatively stable six days apparently did not go unnoticed outside the Washington Beltway. When Trump boarded the executive helicopter last Friday, Gallup had his approval rating at 40 percent with a 55 percent disapproval mark. By Wednesday, both had improved: his approval rating was at 43 percent against a 52 percent disapproval.
But the relative stability gave way with Friday’s attacks and the unforced fight with the press corps.
Trump used his CPAC speech to threaten to “do something about” media outlets he deems “fake news.”
And, to be sure, the longer the week went, there were signs of cracks in the facade.
On Thursday, Trump called his program to increase the number of illegal immigrants who are deported a “military operation” even though immigration guidelines his administration announced this week do not call for the use of military troops.
His Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, and Spicer clarified that statement later, with the latter saying the president was using it as “an adjective” meaning the deportations are being conducted with a “high degree of precision.”
Later that day, Spicer offered “Saturday Night Live,” which has harshly parodied him, fodder for a future skit when he chided a New York Times reporter for yelling out a question without being called on during his daily press briefing.
Spicer said to the reporter in the sharp tone that helped spawn actress Melissa McMarthy’s SNL “Spicy” character: “We’re going to raise our hands like big boys and girls.”
Jason Dick contributed to this report.